How Best To Describe Variable Pricing For Music?

Words matter. The way we describe things are a huge part of how people think of them, even if those descriptions aren’t definitive or in any way concretely imposing on the thing we’re describing.

An example is the language around variable pricing for digital music. The most widely used variant is ‘pay what you want’ and its acronym PWYW. For some reason that grates. It feels dismissive. It feels off-hand. I’m not sure why.

Bandcampmy digital music sales platform of choice – uses the more neutral ‘name your price’.

The one I’ve generally favoured is ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ I like idea of encouraging the listener to consider value and how that value best translates into cash in the context of their economic situation. But I do know some people feel really troubled by it – who feel pressured by the idea that their financial contribution is seen as their expression of what the music’s worth, whether or not they’re in any position to put a price on what it really means to them.

So how about ‘pay what you can’? that’s what (I think) the lovely chaps in Hope And Social use – it’s a very friendly alternative, though it also assumes that people are already in a position where they’re trying to pay as much as possible for it and if they pay less than they ‘can’, somehow they’re out of step with the artist…

I’m gravitating towards ‘pay what you think is fair’ at the moment – fairness is a much more open concept in relation to a ubiquitous digital manifestation of an art-entity (I really need to lay off the academia, it’s messing with my language) – fair takes in what’s fair to me, fair to you and fair FOR art/music. It’s contextual, it’s self defined, and it makes the amount itself less of a statement, given the number of qualifiers in there.

We already have the standard range of ‘what a CD used to cost’ – in the UK that’s roughly £5-£15. That reflected various bits of economic thinking, but was largely about what you could get away with (the fact that CDs cost WAY more than vinyl when they came out, despite being cheaper to make from the get-go says it all). But it provides a useful historical reference for us, and certainly means that most people encountering our ‘20 albums for £25’ deal recognise it as a massive bargain…

So, what works for you? Does variable pricing ever stop you from buying something? I can imagine some people finding the process of deciding on a price to be stressful… maybe there should be a suggested price? (if you’re looking for one for my stuff, you could just try £5 an album. Or if you want to take the average that people pay, try £8. If you want to beat the recently-set record for the most paid for a single album download, try £101 :)  )

Other questions:

  • Do you prefer a minimum price for context?
  • Do you never pay for things that are available with no minimum price?
  • Have you ever not bought something just because the idea of a minimum price seemed to imply a lack of trust?
  • How does it work for you?

Your answers will be REALLY useful for all musicians trying to work through this. 

As I said at the start, words matter. The language we have around music, money, value, experience and the ongoing relationship between artists and their listeners is inherited from a now largely-defunct industrial model, and as such isn’t fit for purpose. This is your chance to become part of that bigger conversation. Call it market research, call it a truth commission – whatever, it’s about making it easier for us all to understand each other and describe what we’re doing in a way that invites other people in.

The comments are yours:  

19 Replies to “How Best To Describe Variable Pricing For Music?”

  1. I’ve got a whole lot of mixed emotions going on here. Yes, I want to pay, but how much? I don’t want to be stingy but I don’t want to overdo it either. So, in that situation I think I need to know the range that the bulk of people are paying. Not the lowest, not the highest.
    I like “fair”. It’s like mutual respect and obligation rolled into one.
    I’ve started to see some artists vary their pricing up & down to see what works for the crowd. They then settle on a figure that works for artist & purchaser.
    Don’t know if these ramblings help. Just some off the cuff thoughts.

    1. Thanks Alec, really good thoughts.

      I’m intrigued by the idea of ‘overdoing it’. For music I love, I can’t imagine what would be overdoing it. I pay as much as I can at a particular time (which is normally a proportion of my music-spend for that month, given that I don’t have unlimited resources for such things, but do spend more money on music now than even at the height of my vinyl fetish period 🙂 )

      If you feel like expanding on the ‘overdoing it’ idea, I’d really appreciate it…

  2. This is something I think about a lot. I wrote about it on the Grassrootsy blog a few weeks ago ( I think you are so right about the importance of language – it is THE key to allowing the potential purchaser to buy into what you are doing.

    I usually go for the ‘pay what you can’ slant, with an emphasis on the fact that if they really want it but don’t feel they have enough then they can have it for whatever they can afford, even if that is nothing. This is a really good way to build relationships too because generally if they don’t have much they show a debt of gratitude in sociability afterwards and you have a new enthusiastic friend/fan. You’re right though about what it means to pay what you ‘can’ (what if you pay less than you can?) – But in my experience it encourages those who probably wouldn’t buy anything to actually buy something, often they have more than they think they do anyway!

    It’s a tricky one. Do we even need a single catchy slogan at all? When I’m performing I generally try to talk about it a bit more than a single line and contextualise, make it applicable and get people to buy into the whole idea. People also generally pay a lot more at shows than they do online, and I see that as down to the power of communication, language, and belonging.

    1. Good stuff Andy – thanks for the link, I enjoyed the article. I think you make two important points. Questioning the need for a catchy slogan – at gigs and any other face to face encounters, it’s really important than this conversation is framed as an ongoing mutual journey into understanding what’s changed about music for both sides of the equation, but for people whose main experience of music acquisition is still buying a product, we need to give them linguistic signposts to the changes that are afoot, which is why this feels like an important conversation at this time…

      The other is the one in your article about people not just paying for a CD/download – this is utterly key to the change in language. All the language we have is adopted from an industrial production/distribution/marketing/consumption process that is both unfit for purpose and leaves us a legacy of clumsy language about what music means and what transactions take place around music, all of it based on that product-centric commodification of music. That’s the bit that has to ultimately evolve into something more reflective of the symbiotic narrative of music producer and music experiencer. From that we may even end up with a completely different set of motivations for making music at all… 🙂

      1. “All the language we have is adopted from an industrial production/distribution/marketing/consumption process that is both unfit for purpose and leaves us a legacy of clumsy language about what music means and what transactions take place around music, all of it based on that product-centric commodification of music.”

        This is the key for me.

        I know that the right direction to move it in is away from charging CD prices for digital information but something about the phrase “pay what you want” has grated with me.

        I think it’s because I’m looking at it from the old perspective. In an ideal world downloads should be free because that’s the nature of digital information and the distribution potential of the internet is quite frankly AMAZING.

        Having said that we’re also in a transition period so we implement something like the model discussed here. Because of this “pay what you want” has a hint of desperation about it.

        It says, I know times are changing and I know my music isn’t part of an industry where people have to buy it if they want to hear it anymore but I’m going to get some money if I can.

      2. “I think it’s because I’m looking at it from the old perspective. In an ideal world downloads should be free because that’s the nature of digital information and the distribution potential of the internet is quite frankly AMAZING.”

        Hi Chris, thanks for your thoughts. I still don’t get this idea at all. Partly because (and again it’s all about language) I don’t ever see art as ‘digital information’. It’s art/culture/story-telling, it’s part of who we are – individually and collectively – and has a value that can be expressed in myriad ways. The most powerful currency in all this is gratitude, but gratitude isn’t tradable in a raw form, so it is expressed as something else, most often as sharing, paying for it or saying thank you. The reason that we pay for it is that it’s perfectly natural to want to be a part of the process of making more music possible when you’re grateful to the person that makes it. The closer to the source you are, the more likely it is to work (labels will always have far less success with variable pricing than artists or bands who make their music available direct to their listeners). But the monetary value that’s placed on that can be anything from 10p to 10 grand, and is affected by so many different influences including the experience of the listener with previous models, their sense of what ‘music’ is worth in and of itself (a bizarre concept but one that still exists) and their ability to pay. If someone has 20p left in the world and decides to give half of it to me because they’re so grateful for my music existing, that’s HUGE. If someone is a millionaire and pays £16 because they want to pay double the average to show what a badass they are, that’s less psychologically healthy, whether or not I get more money.

        I’m far more interested in fostering healthy relationships between people – between artists and art-experiencers, with the art as a conduit – than I am in trying to work out how musicians can make the most money. But I also don’t get at all the ‘everything digital wants to be free’. Time is a currency worth far more than money, and we’re already inviting people to spend a lot of that in finding out what we sound like. Beyond that, we can start to talk about more pragmatically expressable currencies…

        Does that make sense?

      3. Yeah it does, allowing people a way to show gratitude makes a lot of sense.

        I still struggle with the art as digital information debate. I can see some incredible art on Flickr, read books online and listen to a whole lot of awesome music too, streamed or downloaded. It could be argued the discussions on websites like yours are art as well – they are written from the heart, provoke discussion and emotion.

        I can absorb all of this information for free and there is no vibe that I’m getting a free ride. I’m very grateful to you for providing the discussions and the photographers for sharing their work but, in all honesty, it never occurs to me that maybe I should offer some money in exchange.

        labels will always have far less success with variable pricing than artists or bands who make their music available direct to their listeners

        This is causing me to think hard. I’m currently planning on starting a label to release the music of the bands’ I’m involved with. I want to see a label where the music is put first and money is a secondary consideration. Originally I wanted to use variable pricing but I have recently been considering no payment for downloads.

  3. Just a few comments re: info asked for:

    “Other questions:

    Do you prefer a minimum price for context?
    I do not believe in a minimal price, no matter what it is for – although a suggested price is just that, it should also strive to meet a means for the individual supplying the (in this case) Data.

    Do you never pay for things that are available with no minimum price?

    No, I always pay, but on a basis – When artists that peak my interest ask for £7, and I know they need that £7; I give it them. When Radiohead ask for 30p, or whatever it was for In Rainbows, I give them that – as clearly they don’t need the money – whilst living off a new dynamic, they obviously have never done too bad.

    Have you ever not bought something just because the idea of a minimum price seemed to imply a lack of trust?

    Not at all. It should be down to the “fans” interpretation of the music how much it is worth. If they so choose to believe that it (the music) was imposed to a certain period in their life, then they would (may?) be inclined to pay more.

    How does it work for you?

    I don’t sell the music, as you do, nor other artists. I barely sell any at all (which is a shame, but proof that talent thrives if ever I’ve saw it!). I believe you should go with what you think is right (as ever) – If your comfortable scraping the odd few pounds from it, yet earn a living in a “real” job, go for it. Charge what you like.

    Of course, I may be completely wrong, and by no stretch do I say that what I am saying is right. You asked for my thoughts, and as a music buyer, I’m offering.”

    1. I’d also like to point out that I’m open to any further questioning, and I positioned my quotation marks in the wrong place!

  4. When I first started looking to digital downloads as a way to get my own music out there, I loved the idea of ‘pay-what-you-want’. I felt it gave people the idea you were open-minded about such things as what your own creations are worth, and therefor they would support you even more.

    The more I thought about it, it started to seem a bit too much like you were trivialising the worth of your creation. Like you couldn’t quantify it yourself, so let others decide. What if they decide a track you worked so hard on and love with all your soul is worth 10c. How would I feel?

    So I’ve adopted the ‘pay-nothing’ approach.
    For context (a mile off topic), I spend my life learning how to produce my own music from the ground up. I studied and practised for a decade. I put everything I have into it. But the chances of anyone hearing about me are slim (I live in South Africa, and talking about a global market). So I’ve reached the point where I think the ability for people to share my music outweighs the monetary aspect for now.
    Now people don’t have a say in how much to pay.
    If they are true fans, they will support me in other ways, like merch and extra cool deluxe stuff. Well…that’s the hope, at least. I have no idea if I will ever make a true living out of my music, but I have to try.

    But if I had to describe variable pricing on my site (which isn’t even up yet, still on bandcamp, working on it, a week tops:):
    Has a nice ring to it…

    Jon Pentreath – blues-rock producer

  5. I’m pondering this topic quite a bit at the moment, as I’m in the process of getting myself on to Bandcamp and am uncertain what approach to take with regards to pricing.

    One of the problems I have with PWYW is that, due to not having much money at present, I don’t always feel I’m able to pay as much as I’d like to.

    If I pay what I can afford, I end up feeling stingy and that the message I’m sending to the artist is that I’ve placed a low value on their work – not an accurate reflection of my feelings.

    So do I not buy it, with the intention of coming back at a later date when I’m a bit richer?

    From the point of view of me being the artist, I’d rather people hear my work than me make money from it, so I quite like the idea of “pay what you can” – even if that’s nothing.

    I also rather like the thought of saying “If you like this music, pay me back by sharing it with people”.

  6. think your worrying too much over words, pay what you like/want/think its worth/think is fair/can all means exactly same thing to 95 percent of people. (ok to pick a pref pay what you think its worth is prob what id go for, ) i suspect a fixed min has psycological effect on a lot of people id certainly be far more likely to pay that minimum. ive also bought number of fixed price downloads that if theyd been pay whatever id have paid more + found it easier to talk others into a purchase. gigs on other hand ive heard artists sell in ways that seemed to undervalue their art – sounded like shit they wanted rid of and theyd be gratefull for 20p (one artist i heard talking that way id rate in my top 5 albums of this year bloody masterpiece sold like he couldnt be arsed taking them home) at gigs it seems like an invite to chat with the artist which at times is cool, other times artist sounded ok and working out what to pay does turn buying cd into too much hassle. (especially if artists dont give details abou

    1. …things people think mean the same to them can often resonate on completely different levels. The subconscious affect of language is far harder to quantify than the conscious, but often the effects are more stark when looked at in aggregate…

  7. bollocks half my last comment cut off for some reason. suspect some artists at gigs may do better with suggested price and stated willingness to negotiate. experiment , pick what works best.

  8. I tend to intentionally overpay for variable pricing as I respect them more for not being greedy. I’m more like to buy something with variable pricing than normal pricing. I think when you’re aware about what people are up to in their lives (e.g. Baby Flapjack) you are a lot more willing to pay a premium to feel good about helping your friends rather than funding some popstar’s coke habit.

  9. I think Bandcamp got it right. I don’t know if they test marketed it or what, but of all the phrases “Name your price” seems the most inviting. It’s downright cheerful.

  10. I think that the words used to label a potential action do matter. The examples Steve gives in the post all frame things slightly differently. “Name your price” is friendly and cheery but perhaps makes it easy to pay less as there is little connection to the artist and process of creation.

    The problem with most of the other labels, “pay what you want/think it’s worth/etc.” is that it forces me into a more explicit relationship with the artist than I am often comfortable with. I think the key to the transaction functioning meaningfully is that everyone involved needs to be comfortable with what’s going on. Guide prices help but they soften the process a bit too which is a shame.

    I would like some kind of context for the price. If it’s a new album and the musician/band are still recouping costs I can see the value/need from their point of view for more income and if it’s an older project where the costs have been covered or the bankruptcy has expired then the income is surplus. Pay what you think it’s worth is good but what does the band feel they need to get from the project. This might not be in the context of individual transactions but viewing the sales of the music as a whole, or over a discrete period of time.

    There is something uncomfortable about the meeting of commerce and artistic culture. In a way the art our society produces is priceless, but that doesn’t put food on anyone’s table.

  11. I’m very aware that I feel differently depending which side of the deal I’m on .

    I’d be perfectly comfortable with offering my music as “pay what you can”. However, I’m not so comfortable acquiring someone else’s music under these terms.

    I can’t quite put my finger on why this is, but reading this post and all the comments might just help me find out 🙂

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